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Liberty and Justice for all

Tampa’s use of the FaceIt system flies in the face of our Constitution.

Independence Day–the day we celebrate our freedom from an oppressive government. Ironically, our site has a news story about an insidious technology that reduces our personal freedom and encourages government oppression. The technology is called biometrics. It began as a set of technologies that promised to enhance our personal privacy and security, but is quickly turning into a way to perform surveillance and use criminal records to prosecute potentially innocent people.

Biometrics is often hailed as a panacea. By tying security systems to our unique physical characteristics–fingerprints, iris scans, face scans, DNA profiles–identity theft and forgery will become things of the past. And hacking will be made much more challenging if passwords are replaced by unique physical identifiers. That’s what the biometrics hypesters claim about the revolution in personal identification. But no technology is a panacea; in the wrong hands for the wrong purposes, every technological advance has the chance to do more harm than good. And because these physical characteristics are not truly unique, biometrics can do a lot of harm.

Take Tampa, which recently installed a FaceIt system in its Ybor City nightlife district. According to a recent news story on our site, FaceIt scans faces in the crowds of people who frequent Ybor city and compares the face scans against a criminal database of mug shots. If it finds a match, it alerts police, who then pick up the suspect. Law enforcement officials hail FaceIt as a breakthrough that will help them put countless known criminals behind bars and peace-loving people out of harm’s way. But critics, including Congressman Dick Armey, are concerned about the privacy issues involved.

And rightly so. Can you say “Big Brother”? But beyond the privacy issues, it seems to me some basic rights are being trampled on here. What ever happened to the notion that people are innocent until proven guilty?

What all these systems have in common is that they falsely proclaim that our physical characteristics are unique. Face scans are the most obvious example of the fact that they are just approximately unique. I don’t know about you, but I have often been confused for someone else. Now extend that out to the knowledge base equal to a million people and it’s no wonder the Tampa police found 19 people with outstanding arrest warrants when it tested the system at last year’s Super Bowl. I wonder how many of those 19 only look like the right person but are, in fact, the wrong person.

We carry around this myth that our fingerprints, iris scans, and DNA profiles are unique. Of the three, the iris is the best at establishing uniqueness. But in a population of 500,000, chances are there is at least one other person who matches either my fingerprint or my DNA profile. As DNA tests become more elaborate, with more than the current six data points to compare, that ratio could improve. But for now, I’m not comfortable with a 50/50 chance that someone’s DNA links me to a crime scene in my town. In fact, DNA and fingerprints are more often used to prove a suspect’s innocence than to prove guilt. This is why it galled me when a New York City police captain nearly convinced lawmakers to establish mandatory DNA testing for everyone. “Innocent people have nothing to worry about,” he proclaimed. Not true. Dozens of people have been falsely accused of crimes when the evidence rested solely on DNA evidence. That’s why DNA alone cannot convict criminals. You need some other evidence, together with the DNA, to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

At best, biometrics can verify that a person entering her password is who she claims she is. Odds are very slim that an identity thief stole both a password and a fingerprint or iris scan. Though if all we’re talking about is bits, I wonder how easy it will be to fake it. And what happens when an identity thief steals our biometric data? Do we need to have plastic surgery on our fingertips, or do we simply alter the digital description of our fingertips so that it doesn’t match the real thing? The more I consider biometrics, the less secure I feel about the technology than the absence of it. And with Big Brother in possession of the data, how can we retain our independence?

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com.

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